(Update: Adding video, comments from attorney, then-Deschutes DA)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Four of the five Redmond teens convicted of conspiring to brutally kill Barbara Thomas at her home on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway just over 20 years ago, a notorious case known as the “Redmond Five,” will be eligible to seek parole under Gov. Kate Brown’s new commutation plan.
The attorney for one of the five says it's a good move. But the district attorney at the time doesn't believe it means any of them will be granted parole or early release.
The Oregonian reported Thursday that more than half of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders will be eligible to seek parole or in some cases given conditional release under Brown’s plan. The governor’s office released to the newspaper the names of about 250 offenders who meet the criteria.
The four on the list include Lucretia Karle, who was then 16, Ashley Summers, then 15, and Seth Koch, who was also 15 at the time and who pulled the trigger. Justin Link, then 17, was outside the home at the time, communicating by phone, but was termed the ringleader by prosecutors, while Thomas's son, Adam Thomas, 18 at the time, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“The vast majority of youth offenders are extremely well-behaved in prison and upon release have shown themselves to be very productive,” said Thaddeus Betz, attorney for Link, who was sentenced to life in prison.
Betz said he believes those who are imprisoned at a young age often had troubled childhoods and are reformed in prison.
“I think once policy-makers look at research and realize that someone who is convicted at a very young age, that spends 20, 30, 40 years in prison, by the time they advance into their middle ages, they really are not a threat to anybody,” Betz said.
The five teens fled in Barbara Thomas's car but were stopped and arrested at the Canadian border.
The juveniles trashed the 52-year-old woman's home while she was at work and considered various methods of killing her, such as injecting her with bleach or electrocuting her in the bathtub. They ended up beating her over the head with champagne bottles before Koch shot her in the head with a rifle.
The action doesn’t automatically mean they are about to be released, The Associated Press reports.
The governor’s commutations earlier this week granted some adults in custody who committed serious crimes as juveniles the opportunity to appear before the Oregon State Board of Parole and Post Prison Supervision to argue for their release after 15 years in prison, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
“I don't think any of us who were close to it -- the detectives, the sheriff, the police, the State Police. I don't think any of us will ever forget it,” said Mike Dugan, who was the Deschutes County district attorney at the time of the killing.
Dugan says he believes the state Parole Board won't grant early releases or parole to any of those who took part in the murder.
"Well, I'm sure that all of us, including myself, would not be happy with the release of any of these people," Dugan said.
“I think the Parole Board will do the right thing,” he added.
The list includes people convicted between 1988 and 2019 for crimes such as murder, assault, rape and manslaughter while juveniles. A 2019 bill made changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for minors sentenced on or after Jan. 1, 2020.
Betz said, “All of these offenders were under the age of 18. Most, if not all, were probably waived into adult court without any consideration for their maturity”
While the legislation was not retroactive, Brown’s commutations effectively apply part of Senate Bill 1008 — known as a "second-look" hearing — to the list of 70 people currently in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted recent research about juveniles and found they must be treated differently by the criminal justice system, in part because their brains aren’t fully developed at the time when alleged crimes occur.
The governor’s signed order notes “these individuals — initially incarcerated as youth ― are capable of tremendous transformation and, due to the age and immaturity at the time of their offenses and behavior thereafter, should be able to petition for release.”
Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, called the governor’s use of commutations “unprecedented.”
Here's information shared with NewsChannel 21 by an aide to the governor:
Governor Brown believes that we must put more emphasis on preventing crime and rehabilitating youth than on harsh punishments and lengthy and costly prison sentences. We can no longer rely solely on imprisonment as the only solution. Youth should be held accountable for their actions, but the fact is that adolescent brains are still growing and developing, especially in skills such as reasoning, planning, and self-regulation. Yet, too often our criminal justice responses do not take this into account. In particular, Measure 11 removed many routes for young people to demonstrate their capacity for change and positive growth.
Fortunately, SB 1008 opened up a sensible pathway out of imprisonment for youth sentenced as adults. Recognizing that SB 1008 itself was not applied retroactively, the Governor intends to use her constitutional clemency powers to consider youth—on an individualized basis—who didn’t benefit from that legislation.
The Governor’s approach varies slightly for the two distinct groups being considered, but results in these youth getting a similar consideration as their peers—either through a review for potential conditional release or the opportunity for a parole hearing.
For the 214 youth who DOC has determined meet the first set of criteria (was a juvenile at the time of committing the offense for which they are in custody; be serving a sentence that was ordered prior to January 1, 2020; not be serving a sentence for which any convictions are for crimes that were committed as an adult; and has served 50% of their sentence or will have served 50% of their sentence by December 31, 2022), the Governor’s Office will engage in an individualized review process to determine whether the youth has made exemplary progress and if there is considerable evidence of rehabilitation, as well as taking into account input from the DA and victims, if any. If the Governor determines that a commutation is warranted, the youth will be granted a conditional release. We anticipate that these reviews will occur throughout the next several months. The earliest the Governor would make any decisions on conditional releases would likely be in December or January, and the process will continue until a final decision has been made on each case.
For the 78 youth* who DOC has determined meet the second set of criteria (was a juvenile at the time of committing the offense; be serving a sentence that was ordered prior to January 1, 2020; be serving a sentence of fifteen years or more of imprisonment; not be serving a sentence for which any convictions are for crimes that were committed as an adult; and not be serving a sentence with a current projected release date in 2050 or later), the Governor will grant each individual a commutation this week that will allow these youth the opportunity for a parole hearing, as described in ORS 144.397<https://oregon.public.law/statutes/ors_144.397> The commutation will take effect in 45 days, which is the earliest possible date that the Parole Board could schedule a hearing.
To be clear, the Governor is not making any decision to conditionally release these youth; that discretion lies with the Parole Board in these cases. Victims and their families will receive notifications in accordance with the standard victim notification procedures for commutations, and they will have an opportunity to participate in the hearing process.
*This number will be updated this week because the list from DOC contained individuals who have since been released.